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Paradoxically Speaking: Ideas

Whenever we think of recycling, our mind goes to bottles, cans, papers – but what about ideas? Neil Usher has his thinking cap on.

27/07/2021 4 min read

The workplace industry is a great big inflatable dab hand at dressing an old idea as something new, unleashing a wave of energy. Like whipping a rope. The difficulty being, as with the rope, it’s something of a finite linear path.

The latest workplace fascination is anthropology. The same discipline that brought us the comprehensively misunderstood ‘Dunbar’s Number’.

As though we’ve just found a tribe in the Borneo rainforest who’ve never encountered anyone outside their own community, and who, incredibly, don’t have a word for ‘serendipitous encounter’. Because that’s just how they roll. It’s proving to be like trying to find a single benefit of Brexit that is anything to actually do with Brexit. Yet when we say we’re dabbling in a five-syllable ‘ology we become long-term relationship material and everyone wants a bite-sized management summary to avoid having to find out about it. Which brings us back to Dunbar’s Number. Which is all about cognitive capacity.

Because, fundamentally, workplace is a narrow field with an inherently limited pool of ideas. That’s not a criticism, just a reality. And ideas are money. If everyone had one type of workplace but now needs a different type of workplace then that’s super business for everyone in the sector, from strategy to sani-wipes. And the wheels turn. So what happens to the ideas we have? Essentially, we evolve them through terminology. The flexible workplace was no different to Bürolandschaft, other than for the advances in technology that prompted greater mobility. The agile workplace was no different to the flexible workplace. The activity-based workplace – invented by Marvin Gaye in 1962 with everyone’s favourite gender-diversity anthem Wherever I Lay My Hat – was no different to the agile workplace. No-one would be able to tell the difference on inspection. They’re all simply organic, non-assigned, multi-setting environments. Or, at least, should be.

Which of course brings us to everyone’s hallowed saviour of the office (or at least half of it) in the wake of a global disaster – hybrid working. Which is actually no different to activity-based working, and so on. The dream of flexible, agile and activity-based was, after all, variable attendance in shared space based on the office being an intentional destination within an ecosystem of spaces in which to work. They all recognised that technology had, in both principle and practice, freed us from the shackles of the desk, even if the organisation’s approach to management hadn’t quite caught up. And still, in many instances, hasn’t. Which remains the critical success factor with hybrid, as it was with all its antecedents.

As the convergence of practice of recent decades unravels, the sector has to offer something coherent to a world of workplace experts.

Our paradox therefore becomes: we need new ideas, so we’ll see what’s been said and find something that works. Yet ‘hybrid’ is necessary. As the convergence of practice of recent decades unravels, the sector has to offer something coherent to a world of workplace experts. It needs to appear relevant, engaged, the zeitgeist snapping at its heels as it peels away from the mediocrity served up by mainstream media on the subject. It needs to survive and thrive. After many years of being critical of this form of recycling through the workessence blog, therefore, I’ve come to realise that this process of renewal and reinvention is essential. It’s why I so often raid the ancients for inspiration. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks who, in all probability, borrowed from the Egyptians…and so on all the way back to when we were squishing berries to draw mammoths on cave walls. Somewhere deep in the Olduvai Gorge was the very first idea – let’s go see what’s going on outside.

At some point ideas will be obsolete. Like flares. None of the environment that sustained them will remain. The notion of evanescence, for which thanks are owed to science fiction writer, Bruce Sterling, suggests that everything must have an in-built obsolescence, such that at some point it vanishes altogether. He argued that, with an idea, we must consider its demise as the time of its inception. We can see a focus on transience, the impermanence of all things, from Buddhist through to the quite wonderful self-destructive art of Gustav Metzger and Jean Tinguely. We thankfully managed it with the office slide, whose passing really ought to have preceded its inception.

It makes us wonder how long hybrid will be with us, whether its end is already known. Perhaps the instinctive reaction to experiencing two extremes is to choose a middle path until a more constructive and beneficial route can be found. In which case the stories will be told of the pursuit of an expedient response in an uncertain world that allowed us time to gather our thoughts and raid the wisdom of the ages for something more sustainable. Right now, in this phoney time when none of what we’re planning has yet been put into practice and it’s all a game of prediction, it feels decidedly tenuous. It’s quite possible that the best idea of all is yet to come.

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